An undersold cause of the gridlock in Congress is that it’s often allowed to fester quietly. Nowhere is that more true than in the Senate. Not only can members effectively wage a filibuster without actually having to speak, but a single senator can quietly block key votes by virtue of what’s known as a “hold.”
Basically, a hold means they privately signal they’ll object to unanimously approving a nomination. It significantly delays votes that are usually dealt with quickly. Senators don’t want to spend countless hours on the floor fighting to overcome these procedural hurdles, especially with hundreds of military promotions in play as they are right now, so they try to work out the issues privately.
On Wednesday night, the Senate chose a different path. It elected to put Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) historic blockade of military promotions on the floor for all to see. And it was brutal for the senator from Alabama.
Rarely do you see members of a lawmaker’s party attacking the person in such terms. Led by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), they suggested that Tuberville had gone back on his word. They implied that he was afraid to explain himself. They flatly rejected his claim that this wasn’t harming the military. They invoked his lack of military service, suggesting that he didn’t understand these issues as they do. And they effectively accused him of playing into the hands of nefarious dictators by jeopardizing the country’s national security.
They pointed out that they generally agreed with the reasons behind Tuberville’s stand — he wants the Biden administration to reverse its policy providing travel expenses for military members crossing state lines for abortions — but that’s where the agreement stopped. Although the senators have given Tuberville plenty of leeway to pursue this fight and have quietly stood back, that suddenly came to an end.
Here’s a recap of some of the choicest words over four-plus hours of animated discussion, as the Senate tried to consider the nominations one by one — along with where this leaves us.
Ernst and Sullivan repeatedly suggested that Tuberville went back on his promise to allow votes one by one — what the Senate was attempting Wednesday night. (Tuberville had said in September, “Let’s do one at a time or change the policy back. Let’s vote on it.” And he echoed that Wednesday night. But he hasn’t said he would stop blocking unanimous consent on such votes.)
After Tuberville objected to one promotion, Ernst said, “I really respect men of their word. I do not respect men who do not honor their word.”
Sullivan repeatedly gestured at how Tuberville hadn’t explained his alleged about-face on holding votes one by one:
“So, we’re doing what he said. I’m not sure why he’s objecting. Maybe he can explain that in a minute when I bring up another — a real hero, by the way.”“He still hasn’t explained why one-at-a-time is not what he wanted. But maybe he’ll do that. … No explanation over there, so far.”
Sullivan repeatedly pointed to this:
“Again my colleague, ‘Oh, no readiness problem.’ That’s such baloney. Baloney. And everybody knows it. You spend one day in the military, you know it. Really makes me frustrated. Really frustrated.”“We could go in and out on readiness, but my colleague from Alabama is 100 percent wrong. No kidding.”“So, again, my colleague is saying, ‘Oh don’t worry. There’s no problem. No readiness problems.’ No offense, but that’s just ridiculous. And he knows it. We all know it.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) at one point chimed in, joining others in saying this would hurt the recruitment and retention of service members and undermine national security.
“No matter whether you believe it or not, Senator Tuberville, this is doing great damage to our military,” Graham said. “I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been trying to work with you for nine months. Folks, if this keeps going, people are going to leave [the military].”
Sullivan repeatedly suggested that the Chinese and the Russians were loving what they were seeing.
“Again, the Chinese are like — they’re watching it, I guarantee it, hello, guys — and they’re like, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe how dumb these guys are,’” Sullivan said.He added at another point: “The Chinese are like, ‘Man we’ve been wanting to take out the U.S. Navy for decades, and the U.S. Senate is doing it right now.’”
Sullivan concluded late in the night: “We are going to look back at this episode and just be stunned at what a national-security suicide mission this became.”
Ernst’s presentations were the most subtly harsh. She repeatedly pointed to her own and Sullivan’s military service, while suggestively mentioning those (seemingly, Tuberville) who hadn’t served.
“We’ve heard brief résumés of warriors that we really can’t go into on the floor of the United States Senate,” she said. “Again, those of us that have served understand why we can’t do that.”
She added at another point: “I’ll have to explain it to my colleagues that maybe haven’t served why [these presentations] are brief.”
At another point, she referred to “those of us that have served and been part of a team and have been deployed,” emphasizing “served” and “team.”
Ernst and Sullivan effectively accused Tuberville of playing games with the lives of heroes — using them as pawns in a fight over a policy for which they are not responsible.
While mentioning one candidate for promotion, Sullivan began shouting: “This is not the guy to make a point with! Flying in at night, recovering POWs and dead Americans. Heroic actions. And the U.S. Senate’s response is, ‘Thank you very much. You’re not going anywhere. We’re going to punish you.’ Why? Because we can? Because we feel like it? What a bunch of baloney.”
“They have done everything they possibly can and given more than most for their country,” Ernst added. “Duty and honor, their service, sacrifice for this nation. And what is this body — this nation — doing to them? This will be remembered. It’s a dark evening. This will be remembered.”
As for the impact of all of this? It is to be determined. Ernst and Sullivan’s leading the charge made sense, given their military service, but it was a relatively small number of Tuberville’s GOP colleagues taking this stand. The pressure might have to come from his party more broadly.
In a brief interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday night, Tuberville projected defiance.
“We’re not going to start backing up now just because people are starting to get cold feet … on my side,” he said.
A major question from here is whether the Senate might move to change the rules to exempt military promotions from such holds. But that would require the votes of around nine Republicans — more than those who decided to speak out against Tuberville on Wednesday night. And GOP senators have expressed reservations about that rule change potentially leading to others.
It was a display surely born of exasperation with Tuberville’s block, along with worries about the burgeoning war in Israel and how it all might reflect politically on their party.
The Senate’s late-night theater could serve as a cautionary tale for those who might opt to use this tool in the way Tuberville has. Another GOP senator — J.D. Vance (Ohio) — has vowed a similar block of Justice Department nominations. The Wednesday showdown would signal that senators still can do this but that it will come with more pain.
The showdown was an exercise that the Senate has resisted, and, ultimately, it might not work, but it probably needed to happen. At the very least, the issue was brought to the Senate floor.